PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Lee "Scratch" Perry: 20th Century Masters (The Millennium Collection)

Tim O'Neil

Lee 'Scratch' Perry

20th Century Masters (The Millennium Collection)

Label: The Millennium Collection
US Release Date: 2004-05-18
UK Release Date: Available as import

Dub reggae is heavy music, music with an irresistible gravitational pull. The rhythm section is more than just the genre's backbone, it's the undeniable pulsating heart and soul. The bass drum and bassline fuse into an implacably voracious whole, an impossibly attractive singularity that threatens to swallow everything else in it's immediate vicinity. The vocals, the small snare flourishes, the minimal guitar lines, they're all mere planetoids revolving around the massive gravity of the monstrous rumbling rhythm.

There is arguably no greater figure in the development of Jamaican music than Lee "Scratch" Perry. Even the indefatigably popular Bob Marley owes a percentage of his incredible success to Perry's production, on early Marley albums such as "African Herbsman." Amazingly, this rich compilation focuses merely on the period of 1976-77, following his signing to Island Records and the full establishment of the fertile Black Ark studio. After having helped to create both dub and ska during the early '70s, he entered a period of feverish creativity which preceded his eventual descent into vertiginous paranoia.

There are those who would turn their noses at the Millennium Collection series. While it is true that these discs represent probably the least subtle way for unscrupulous labels to repackage and strip-mine the discographies of classic groups who have no control over their back-catalogs, it is also true that the music speaks for itself. If you have even a passing interest in the history of dub reggae, you probably have most -- if not all -- of the tracks on this compilation. But I can think of many worse ways for a novice to be introduced to the world of Jamaican music than this bargain-priced collection.

The Millennium Collection format is actually pretty ingenious. By limiting every act to ten or twelve songs on a single, unadorned disc, the music can only stand or fall on it's own merits. Sometimes a Millennium Collection is the perfect format to experience more marginal acts, third-stringers such as Jet, Stephen Bishop or Klymaxx. Sometimes, as is the case with legends such as Louis Armstrong, James Brown or Mr. Perry himself, the idea of encapsulating an entire career, or even merely a small sliver of said career, onto one measly slab of plastic is comical. But, as the tip of an iceberg -- the sampler tray from an incomprehensibly dense menu -- it does a damn fine job.

Working with a number of groups, as well as with his own solo material, Perry succeeded in creating one of the most recognizably distinctive production styles of all time. On tracks like the Upsetters' "Dread Lion", Perry was able to infuse his music with an air of sinister inevitability, an almost primal dread communicated through the hazy, paranoid fog of cavernous reverb and echo. The process of learning to appreciate dub begins with understanding the tension and the anxiety at the center of what, on the surface, might appear to be very relaxed music. British punk has always been attracted to reggae and dub for one very simple reason: reggae and dub are as much a means of political expression for the economically repressed and politically impotent black Jamaicans as '70s punk was for the undernourished and marginalized white British underclass. Bob Marley isn't just the musical legend he is in America and Europe, in Jamaica he's a political hero: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X and JFK rolled into one. When a track like "Dread Lion" conjures up images of the dark and dangerous African jungle, with a powerful dreadlocked figure ruling over the plains of ancestral Babylon, it's a call for political action.

Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" (which the Clash covered on their classic debut), features Murvin's impossibly febrile falsetto over a deceptively placid rhythm. It's nothing less than a full-fledged call to revolution, a fact belied by its massive popularity on the British pop charts circa 1976. Max Romeo & The Upsetters' "War in a Babylon", one of the most famous reggae songs of all time, is equally contentious. Romeo's voice sounds bright and joyful, but there's no doubt that his words foreshadow inescapable conflict and conjure the inescapably powerful force of Biblical prophecy.

One of the more interesting artifacts for the casual reggae fan are Perry's own tracks, featuring the producer's own voice and a slightly more unhinged perspective than the relatively restrained tracks he produced for other groups. "Soul Fire" in particular foreshadow his later bouts of madness, the same madness that would eventually climax in the destruction of the Black Ark studios. It's a raw and vulnerable performance, and when he screams the words "Soul fire/ I ain't got no water", you feel the frenzied fingers of insanity clutching at the base of your own brain.

Brian Wilson wasn't the only studio visionary to be felled by his own prodigiously scarred psyche. But regardless of his eccentricities, Perry still remains a singular figure in the history of world music. For anyone with a serious interest in the appreciation of Jamaican music, I cannot imagine a more redundant collection -- but if you haven't yet made Mr. Perry's acquaintance, I can't think of a better place to start.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.